Monday, December 29, 2014

The top 7 pop culture items my son introduced me to in 2014

My son turned five last week. It’s a good age, as all of his ages to date have been. My wife and I have had fun introducing some of our favorite things to him, but it’s been just as much fun watching him discover his own favorites and letting him share them with us. Here are seven of the coolest things I discovered in 2014 that I probably wouldn’t have without the boy’s guidance.

How to Train Your Dragon (Film)
One fateful family movie night in early fall, the boy requested a rental of Dreamworks' well-regarded How to Train Your Dragon. He's not one to get fixated on any one pop culture item (my slightly smug condolences to all the families who've endured several dozen viewings of Frozen in the past year), but every now and then he latches onto a serious favorite. We've seen How to Train Your Dragon several times over and How to Train Your Dragon 2 twice in the theater. My wife and I regularly snuggle up with him on the couch to watch the Cartoon Network TV adaptation, which is entertaining enough that none of us like to miss an episode.

Plot-wise the original movie is nothing all that new - misfit kid bonds with a misunderstood animal and teaches his elders to reconsider their outdated traditions - but it's visually lovely (famed cinematographer Roger Deakins was an advisor on both movies) and full of appealing characterizations and rich world-building. I love how the films and shows avoid Disney-style anthropomorphism and let the dragons behave like pets and wild beasts. I’ve seen enough superfluous, wacky sidekicks in the past five years that  watching an animal be an animal feels almost revolutionary. It's certainly struck a chord with the boy. I can't remember the last time one of our imaginary games didn't involve some manner of dragons.
How to Train Your Dragon (Books)
As much of an imagination-starter as the movies and shows have been, they don't hold a candle to Cressida Cowell's series of adventure books. The boy made the leap to chapter books this year, so we naturally had to check out the source material for his favorite movie. Turns out the books are goofier, grosser and considerably darker than the films (and given the last third of How to Train Your Dragon 2, that's saying something). The names and basic personality traits of several major characters are the only threads that really tie the two together. While these dragons are markedly more anthropomorphic than their animated counterparts - they speak "Dragonese" and display human emotions - they’re still a far cry from Disney.

The ongoing saga of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, the misfit Viking boy doomed to be a hero, is fraught with horrors ranging from torture to witchcraft to slavery, and it's all fantastic. It’s little-kid high adventure that flashes me back to my favorite books from my own boyhood. Since October the boy and I have read nine of the series' eleven books (a grand total of something like 2700 pages). Every night I'm just as eager as he is to find out what happens next. 

I think the boy’s favorite feature of the series is the detailed profiles Cowell compiles for the various dragons. He can rattle off the names and defining traits of dozens of dragon species, from the Poisonous Piffleworm to the Brainless Leg-Remover to the Seadragonus Giganticus Maximus. He’s also invented a number of his own dragon species, which he describes with clinical precision and a perfect imitation of Cowell’s prose style. That’s a mark of some good kid-lit right there.

I was never much of a gamer - if it doesn't have Mario or NBA basketball players in it, I probably haven't played it - but it's a fact of modern-day parenting that video games are as much a part of today's pop culture childhood as VCRs were part of mine. With that in mind, we've let the boy explore some age-appropriate gaming on the tablet and computer. The biggest hit thus far has been Machinarium, an eerily beautiful puzzle and adventure game from the independent Czech studio Amanita Design. It's the deceptively simple story of a spirited little robot trying to rescue his friends from a group of robo-thugs who have taken over their metal-strewn home town. I say "deceptively" because I'll be damned if I can figure out half the puzzles. That's my science-minded wife's department. She and the boy have spent any number of hours huddled around her Surface tablet cracking codes and solving problems for their robot buddy. I'm content to just look on and nod as I watch the twin marches of time and technology troop on by.

Was (Not Was)
This one is kind of indirect, but I’m counting it anyway. During a conversation about dinosaurs this summer I naturally started singing “Walk the Dinosaur,” which naturally led me to show the boy the video on YouTube, which naturally led to me wondering about the rest of the Was (Not Was) catalog, which naturally led to me discovering that Was (Not Was) is a pretty good band. They pull off ‘80s funk about as well as anybody not from Minneapolis, and their oeuvre is both smarter and much more extensive than their several-hit-wonder reputation might suggest. The boy, of course, just likes “Walk the Dinosaur.” That’s cool too.

The Iron Giant
I picked up Ted Hughes’ children’s book (originally titled The Iron Man in the UK but changed for its American release for obvious reasons) at the library knowing only that it was written by Sylvia Plath’s husband and that Brad Bird made it into a beloved movie. It’s a fun, pleasantly melancholy book, particularly considering that Hughes wrote it largely to comfort his children after their mother’s suicide. I’m especially fond of the early going, when the Iron Giant mostly shambles about the English countryside eating metal. I’m less enamored of the closing chapter, where the Giant saves the Earth from an invading space bat, but of course that’s the boy’s favorite part.

The movie is as good as advertised, deftly transforming Hughes’ shaggy story into a moving Cold War meditation filled with lush hand-drawn animation and excellent voice acting. Bird wisely substitutes an overzealous military official for the space bat, creating a fantasy that blends smoothly with real-life fears and wonderments. It’s also a good way to ease kids into an awareness of Vin Diesel, a knowledge base that will be increasingly vital as they approach adulthood.

Local Current
One of the many things I love about Minnesota is that it’s one of the few places in America that would have a 24-hour radio stream dedicated solely to local music. I’d listened to Local Current on my computer here and there in the past, but it wasn’t until we bought a new car with HD radio capability that I really dug into it, and it wasn’t until the boy responded enthusiastically to the playlist that it became my default radio station. For whatever reason, Minnesota music speaks to him in a way other formats don’t. We tune in every morning on the way to preschool and chat about the different artists and song styles. So far he seems especially fond of Lizzo, Bob Dylan and Doomtree (I’ve caught him wandering around the house singing “Doomtree Bangarang, Doomtree Bangarang” several times). As a bonus, our Scion's dashboard display of the song title and artist name is proving to be a surprisingly effective tool for beginning reading.

Japanese Monster Movies
I’ll own up to something embarrassing: before this year, I’d never watched an entire kaiju movie without the protective sheen of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I’m not sure how that happened, as those movies fall perfectly within my sphere of interests, but there you have it. Fortunately, this summer’s Godzilla remake generated some heavy buzz around the preschool water cooler and the boy started asking all sorts of questions about Godzilla’s origins, motivations and enemies. I’m enough of a trash film buff that I could give him semi-informed answers on those topics but eventually it was time to brave the movies themselves.

I decided to ease him into kaiju films with Gamera, the giant flaming turtle known as a “friend to all children.” We started with Gamera vs. Barugon (a subtitled print which I read aloud to him) then moved on to the truly bizarre Gamera vs. Guiron (aka Attack of the Monsters), in which the titular hero rescues two Earth children stranded on a distant planet populated entirely by two attractive young cannibal women and their pet monster. After that we worked our way into the genuine article with Godzilla vs. Monster Zero and the marvelous Mothra vs. Godzilla, easily our favorite of the bunch.

As much as the boy digs his Japanese monsters, he’s understandably bored by much of the perfunctory human-oriented filler material wedged in between creature battles (heck, who isn’t?), so it made for a nice compromise when we discovered Hanna-Barbara’s short-lived ‘70s Godzilla cartoon on Amazon. That’s his favorite incarnation at the moment, but I’m sure we’ll get back to the movies in the near future, probably next time Mommy is out for the evening. Mommy does not care for giant rubber monsters.